Woman looking at herself in the mirror with compassion

Heal with Compassion

Any program of self-change is bound to include some moments of discouragement. Disappointment and frustration are natural when the fantasy of immediate results is squashed, or the expectation of perfect discipline or consistency is not realized.

It is common to start off with a great burst of energy and then slowly wind down. It is natural to set high initial goals and then have to reevaluate their feasibility. These are all normal turns in the cycle of change. They happen to everyone. The challenge is to deal with these setbacks realistically without allowing them to build into self-hatred or cynicism. Compassion toward yourself and others is an integral part of the wellness journey.

“A great deal of chaos in the world occurs because people don’t appreciate themselves. Having never developed sympathy or gentleness towards themselves, they cannot experience peace and harmony within themselves, and therefore what they project to others is also inharmonious and confused. . . . That kind of gentleness towards yourself and appreciation of yourself is very necessary. It provides the ground for helping yourself and others.”

– Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala

There are times to be strict with yourself and times when you should ease up. Self-compassion is a way to handle disappointment and frustration and keep moving ahead with your efforts to change. As you practice self-compassion, which incorporates self-acceptance and self-forgiveness, you naturally learn greater compassion for the shortcomings of others. Such awareness reminds you to be flexible in your approach to life, contributing greatly to your overall wellness.

The High Price of “Should”
Valuable life energy is wasted in burdening yourself with guilt and blame. (“I should have done this.” “I shouldn’t have done that.”) These “shoulds” are danger signs if they are accompanied by feelings of self-hatred. Approach them gently, with caution. You need to examine them to determine whether they are just hangovers from early training (“You should always smile”) or whether they are self-imposed demands and unrealistic beliefs that have no basis in your current reality. (“I should do everything perfectly or not at all.” “I should never let others see me as weak, or they will take advantage of me.”)

Learn to observe yourself more honestly and to show compassion for any areas that are not meeting your expectations. This will help you stay well. Self-hatred can build up an internal rigidity that is stressful on your system. Your emotional energy becomes toxic and that negativity weakens your immune system. With compassion, you open yourself up again, letting energy flow more freely through your whole body, soothing your emotions and clearing your mind.

Many body-oriented therapies such as massage, Rolfing, and bioenergetics, are designed specifically to help release years of accumulated resentment and rigidity. Any effort to change will only be lasting and life supporting if it grows in a soil that has been nourished with compassion. Without the compulsiveness of shoulds, your journey to wellness can be a joyous adventure.

What Is Compassion?
The basis of compassion is an honest recognition of your own suffering and that of others. Suffering is part and parcel of being alive. We suffer when we stay attached to the past, afraid to embrace the future. We suffer when we make unrealistic demands on ourselves or others. We suffer when the people we love leave us. When you acknowledge that you are not perfect, and neither is anyone else, you develop a sense of compassion.

Compassion is not blindness or naivete, however. Just because you may experience compassion for a teenager who was arrested for shoplifting or for yourself for breaking a promise doesn’t mean that you condone a theft or relieve yourself of the need to acknowledge your broken agreement and your responsibility to clear it up. With genuine compassion, we let go of the past; we release grievance, recrimination, and blame; and we attempt to reconcile. We do not assume, however, that this will necessarily change our circumstances or the attitudes and behaviors of those around us, though it could.

Showing yourself compassion does not mean becoming resigned to your problems. Compassion and resignation are two different things. Resignation is dry, passive, and lifeless. It is an attitude of defeat. Compassion is active and lively and requires your participation.

When you show yourself compassion, you willingly look below the surface of your behaviors or feelings. You find your true essence—your core of basic goodness that may have been temporarily obscured, but never diminished. When you see yourself (or others) honestly, compassion becomes much easier.

Compassion toward yourself or others can relax you physically and bring you peace of mind. Such harmony is the essence of healing. And with inner harmony, the situations and decisions that formerly seemed difficult or complex are suddenly simple, clear, and sometimes even easy.

A Short Exercise in Compassion

  1. Reflect on one or two ways in which you are hard on yourself. What do you blame yourself for? What do you feel bad or guilty about? What “mistake” in your recent past still burdens you with feelings of inadequacy or regret? For example:I feel bad about overeating at almost every meal.
  2. Identify any accompanying message(s) of self-hatred, personal judgments, or negative interpretations.
    For example:

    The messages I tell myself about my overeating are “I’m undisciplined, weak, and lazy.”

    The weight of the burden is the seriousness with which we take our separate and individual selves.

    – Thomas Merton

  3. Ask yourself whether you really want to change that behavior or problem. If the answer is yes, the most effective change will take place if you willingly adopt a nonjudgmental attitude toward yourself. Go on to Step 4. If your answer is no or maybe, read ahead anyway. It is important to accept yourself as much when you are ready to make a change as when you are not.
  4. The key to compassion is honesty with yourself, about yourself. It is enhanced by a conscious intention to be compassionate with yourself and others. As you form your intention for compassion, keep in mind that compassion may not immediately arise as a feeling experience, so if you wait for your feelings to magically change, you might wait a long time. Compassion begins with a decision based in the reality of the human condition. And it is followed by the willingness and the effort to act on the basis of what you have decided. Quite simply, you make the intention to live in compassion with yourself or others, exert some effort in acting differently, just watch without judgment if you fall short of your goal, and then make the
    intention again.

Be patient. Your willingness to look at yourself and others in the world around you with open eyes, without defensiveness and denial, is a monumental step. Your intention to be compassionate will slowly change your mental programming and build your energy for spontaneous action. Enjoy your wellness journey.

Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.

The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at (www.BodyMindSpirit.com). The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.

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Written by John W Travis MD MPH

Explore Wellness in 2021